Back in about 1955 we lived in an old brick house on the Telegraph Road a hundred yards or so back from the beach in the town of Bathurst (now called Banjul) on the river Gambia in West Africa. It had big airy rooms, and tall wooden shuttered sash windows, and wooden floorboards you could see between into the rooms below, which were full of whirring, clattering telegraph equipment. There was no running water, and the toilet had a bucket under it that got removed at night, sometimes when you were sitting on it. Drinking water came in small quantities from a condenser. Milk came from milk powder mixed with this water. There were big spiders on the ceiling, that bounced off the floor if they fell. We slept under mosquito nets, and if you slept with an arm against the net you’d wake in the morning with the skin raw where mosquitoes had bitten through the net.
And there were big iron rings set into the wall beneath the balcony that overlooked the beach. My father said that was where slaves used be kept in chains. And maybe they were. After all, this was one of the ports of departure of slaves to the New World, and the house was probably 150 years old – old enough to have seen slaves.
The garden around the house was all sand, because Bathurst was really just a sand spit. There were mango trees in the garden, and we ate lots of their big juicy purple mangoes. Hairy fruit bats with leathery wings also fed on the mangoes at night. And there were tall steel frame telegraph masts at each end of the garden, a hundred feet high, aerial wires stretched between. And there were scampering lizards that shed their tails when chased – then grew new, sometimes double ones.
Between the house and the beach there was a Muslim cemetery from which the yellowing bones got slowly washed out onto the beach. And further up the beach there were big dead sharks that the local fishermen had caught, with only their conical heads remaining attached to a cartilaginous spine, all the flesh stripped off. Further up the coast there was a creek, inhabited by crocodiles, their twin eyes poking out of the water that ran out between the mangrove swamps onto the beach. In the surf on the beach there were occasionally sharks patrolling. And on the sand there were numerous whitened cuttlefish shells, and stranded iridescent swollen Portuguese Men o’ War with long blue threaded stinging tails. We often watched the sun setting on the western horizon after an afternoon on that beach.
There was also a tide rip on the beach, where two shore currents met, and a resultant strong current flowed out from the beach. One day some sailors from a British naval ship visited the beach and happened to pick the precise spot where the tide rip was to go swimming: two or three of them were drowned.
The port near the centre of the town consisted of a jetty made of palm trees that had been pile-driven into the sea floor off the beach. Just inland from it was the governor’s palatial mansion.
It was baking hot and humid most of the time, with a faint odour of decay. But sometimes there were tremendous storms, torrential rain, thunder and lightning. One night lightning even took big branches off the mango trees.
We had a black gardener called Charlie who used to carry me on his shoulders. But instead of just walking sedately around, he used to crouch down low, and run, making me scream with laughter.
One day the old house got torn down by an engine that pulled out the brick walls with steel cables looped round them. It was replaced by one built of concrete blocks, which had running water and two bathrooms and a kitchen. There were no gaps in its concrete beam floors.
The river Gambia was the place upon which Alex Haley’s Roots was based. But I have roots there too. After all, I once lived there.
It was the most primitive place I ever lived. It’s also the place of which I have the most vivid memories, of scorching heat and torrential rain and mosquitoes and bats and sharks and crocodiles. Modernity had only just started to arrive. It was called the White Man’s Grave, and it had an air of the imminence and the reality of death about it. Death was never far away: I once watched a big snake writhing on the ground as it was being killed with spades on a road nearby.
One day we boarded a Dakota and took off from the primitive airport with its uneven steel mesh runway. I never went back. I never wanted to. It’s probably all very modern and civilised now, and I’d hate it. I never like going back to anywhere I once lived, because the changes always shock me.
Last I heard, it had become a tourist resort with the beaches lined with hotels. I doubt there are any more crocodiles left in its creeks, or dead sharks and human bones on its beaches. I knew it at a time when it was in transition from one era to another, before its raw, elemental nature had been completely overlaid with a cushioning buffer of civility, with streetlights and roadsigns and traffic lights and adverts and bars and discos and drive-in burger bars.
But it’ll all still be there, six inches beneath the surface. And when the tide of modernity has eventually subsided it’ll be reclaimed by the lizards and bats and mosquitoes and spiders and snakes and crocodiles and sharks.